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Home Articles Flashpoints Australia to go Nuclear? Are you Crazy?

Australia to go Nuclear? Are you Crazy?

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SAT JUNE 16 2018




People for Nuclear Disarmament's and the Human Survival project's UN nuclear disarmament campaigner John Hallam has reacted with predictable horror to suggestions reported by the Sydney Morning herald's Peter Hartcher that a former adviser to Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop, Peter Hendy, seems to think it is an idea whose time may be approaching.

According to Mr Hallam, who returned not so long ago from the 2018 NPT meeting in Geneva,
“I hope and pray that this can be dismissed as no more than a demented thought-bubble on the part of someone to whom I wouldn't usually give any credibility. But the fact that he is a former adviser to our current Prime Minister and our current foreign minister does mean he must be answered.”

“He seems to be suffering from the common and dangerous delusion that nuclear weapons confer security advantages of some sort on their possessors whereas in fact the reverse is true – the actual possession of nuclear weapons simply ensures positively that you are on somebody's or on a number of somebody's, target lists.”

“In a nuclear – armed world, the prime duty of an Australian Government is to make sure we are NOT on anybody's target list. Above all it is to ensure that Australian cities and those who live in them do not get turned into nuclear firestorms. Possession of nuclear weapons will do the opposite.

“Every nuclear-armed state insists – including the DPRK – that its nuclear weapons are purely aimed at other nuclear-armed states. There are in fact UN resolutions on 'negative security assurances' that call on nuclear-armed states to state this in a more formal and upfront way, and some have already done so. In a less formal way all of them do so, and even the DPRK, while making threats against the US, made it clear that Australia was not a target – though we nearly blew this by our ill-advised 'joined at the hip' statements.”

Australian nuclear weapons acquisition would immediately make us a nuclear target, even before we had acquired either a credible capability or a means of delivery, meaning that Australian cities would immediately become nuclear targets for absolutely no compensatory improvement in our capabilities and no improvement in our security.

Result – a drastic (indeed a catastrophic) decline in Australian security and a drastically increased likelihood that we all get to be vaporized.”

“Calls for an Australian nuclear deterrent are insanely irresponsible and can lead only to a catastrophic erosion of national security.”

John Hallam
People for Nuclear Disarmament
Human Survival Project

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Trump triggers talk of Australia going nuclear

By Peter Hartcher


15 June 2018 — 9:54pm

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Should Australia develop its own nuclear weapons? It seems an

outlandishly radical thought for such a safe country to consider. But

a former adviser to Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop thinks it's an

idea whose time is fast approaching.

In his book Why Australia Slept, launched this week, Peter Hendy says

that Australia needs to consider nuclear weapons because "if we could

financially afford them, [they] would secure an even more independent

foreign policy" for the country.

Illustration: John Shakespeare


Hendy, a former Liberal federal MP, former head of the Australian

Chamber of Commerce and Industry and now a consultant, is not the

first to raise this delicate subject. The way things are going he

won't be the last.

Three former deputy secretaries of Australia's Defence Department -

strategists Hugh White, Paul Dibb and Richard Brabin-Smith - have

mooted the idea in the past year. Till these most recent months, it's

been something of a taboo topic in respectable circles.


One big reason? Australia already has the protection of the United

States nuclear umbrella. Under this system, the US pledges that if

anyone should launch a nuclear strike on one of its allies, Washington

would retaliate against the aggressor.

So to suggest that Australia now needs its own atomic arsenal is to

suggest that there has been a fundamental breakdown in trust. In

short, that the US alliance is dead.

The four fissile firebrands - Hendy, White, Dibb and Brabin-Smith -

don't press this as an urgent priority. But they don't want Australia

to be caught unprepared if it should become so.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un with US President Donald Trump.

Photo: AP

But hold on. Why now? Isn't this exactly the wrong time to be laying

such plans? Doesn't this week demonstrate that the US can act to deal

with a hostile nuclear state? Didn't Donald Trump's summit with Kim

Jong-un just reduce a threat for the US allies in the region,

including Australia, which falls within reach of Kim's long-range


There are two key points here. First, the text of the brief document

that the leaders signed does say that North Korea "commits to work

toward complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula". But this is

neither new nor convincing.

A former US nuclear negotiator with the North Koreans, Republican

David Asher, who led the North Korean activities group in the White

House of George W. Bush, says: "For the President to say that the

nuclear threat has been eliminated is, I think, unwise. If he's wrong,

it'll be on him."

Asher, a scholar at the Centre for New American Security, says: "I

have hope, but after dealing with the North Koreans for 25 years, it's

not a promise I personally can have great faith in." Asher has a

litany of first-person examples of Kim Dynasty duplicity.

Malcolm Turnbull and Donald Trump at the White House in February.

Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

The consensus in Canberra is much the same. Although Turnbull has

commended Trump for giving it "a red-hot go", he says that we need to

see whether Kim actually delivers. The briefings that the security

agencies gave Turnbull and other ministers this week were summarised

by one participant as "it's complex, we need to wait and see".

So the first point is that no one can yet know whether Trump has

actually de-fanged a dangerous enemy. But the second point is what

everyone does know now - that Trump is prepared to trade away the

interests of an ally if he thinks it will help him get a deal with an


Trump announced that he had promised Kim he would stop the big

military exercises that the US conducts with South Korea twice a year.

This is not necessarily a bad idea and may be a useful concession to

show US goodwill.

The joint exercises began in 1968 after Pyongyang sent a team of 31

commandos to assassinate South Korea's president in his official

residence, the Blue House, in Seoul. They failed but got within 100

metres of their target. The military manoeuvres were designed to show

US and South Korean unity, commitment and readiness.

South Korea's Moon Jae-in with Kim Jong-un in North Korea last month.

Photo: AP

The problem? The cancellation was news to South Korea's President,

Moon Jae-In. It was news to another keenly interested US ally, Japan's

Shinzo Abe. And it was news to Trump's own military commanders, who

were in the middle of preparations for the next exercises, two months


And in announcing the end to the manoeuvres, Trump adopted the

language of the North Korean propagandists. Pyongyang has long railed

against the exercises as "provocative war games". The US has never

called them war games nor described them as provocative; Trump did


It seems that Kim put the demand to Trump in the negotiating room and

Trump agreed on the spot. He agreed to a demand by an enemy without

consulting his ally. "It is urgent to make bold decision," Kim told

the US leader, in the words of the North Korean official news agency,

and Trump bought it.

This was greeted with delighted incredulity in Beijing. Because this

is precisely what the Chinese Communist Party has sought for many

years. Professor Shi Yinhong, of the People's University in Beijing,

said that Trump's pledge to halt military manoeuvres was almost "too

good to be true" from China's point of view.

Illustration: Jim Pavlidis


Why does China care? Because one of its greatest strategic aims is to

separate the US from its allies. One of America's greatest assets is

that it sits at the centre of a global alliance system embracing more

than 40 nations, including most of the world's major economies. China,

by contrast, has a only couple of rather unimpressive allies, Pakistan

and North Korea.

Shi drew the connection: If US troops in South Korea were to stop the

military exercises, it could cause allies to lose confidence in

Washington and undermine the entire US military presence in Asia, he

told America's National Public Radio. For China, this is victory on

every level.

"We see a clear pattern of Donald Trump turning against his allies,"

says a close student of Trump foreign policy, Tom Wright, a senior

fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "He's generally

hung his allies out to dry."


Just in the last two weeks he has harmed US alliances with Britain,

France, Germany and Canada, putting punitive tariffs on their exports

and insulting Canada's Justin Trudeau on top, calling him weak and


He upset his allies at the annual G7 summit by proposing that Russia

be restored to the group's meetings, when the G7 is supposed to be

ostracising Putin for invading Ukraine.

Trump has inflicted so much political damage to America's European and

Canadian alliances that "the community of North American and European

nations forming the nucleus of the alliance that won the Cold War for

the West is closer to breaking up now than at any time since the

1940s" in the assessment of Walter Russell Mead, an American scholar.

"And," says Wright, "he completely sidelined Japan" with this week's

Kim summit. It seems that there was only one US ally who had been able

to persuade Trump decisively to change US policy, and even that has

turned sour, says Wright.

South Korea's Moon was the one who persuaded Trump to try directly

negotiating with Kim, yet in those very negotiations Trump ended up

trading away a South Korean interest. "Moon thought he could ride the

tiger, control where he went, but didn't realise the tiger goes where

the tiger wants to go," as Wright puts it. "He brought Trump into this

but then lost control."

A photograph released by German Chancellor Angela Merkel's office

captured the tense relations at the G7 summit.

Photo: AP

Why does Trump consistently act against the interests of his allies?

Wright, who predicted just this  pattern of behaviour before Trump was

elected, explains: "In his 30-year history of talking and writing

about this stuff, Trump has always been more aggravated by America's

friends than its enemies.

"He has been consistent about this for 30 years. It's not

sophisticated or complex, but he is much more ideological than people

think: interdependence is a bad deal for America." Trading partners

will cheat America; allies will free ride on America's military


Australia has been unscathed so far; Wright says that this will likely

change only if some disagreement emerges. Trump isn't so systematic to

work down a list of allies he must alienate, but he will "react to

what's in front of him. It's possible to sneak on by."

The only time he will turn against a US rival is if he thinks that

rival is directly threatening the US with attack, according to Wright.

Otherwise, he's happy to deal with America's enemies: "He's open to

deals, he worries about commitments."

Which is how he manages to make concessions to North Korea while

sidelining the interests of South Korea. Trump went further, saying

that he wanted one day to withdraw the 28,000 US troops that provide

an American "trip wire" across the Demilitarised Zone separating North

from South.

If the North should invade, the US forces will be engaged

automatically, the wire tripped, guaranteeing America will come to

Seoul's defence. Trump said this was a matter for the future; South

Korea's Moon wishes he hadn't raised it at all.

If Trump's North Korean gambit works, he will have a serious

achievement. If it fails? Says Asher: "The irony of the North Korean

denuclearisation deal could be that everybody else decides to go

nuclear. If it fails and Kim remains in power and countries doubt our

commitment, then what's to stop Japan or South Korea or Australia

going nuclear?"

It could lead to "mass nuclearisation - it's a very bad position, 20

countries in the region with nukes, like 20 people in a room all

pointing guns at each other".

These are, of course, imponderables, possible futures that no one

hopes for but governments need to plan for. Hendy and White and Dibb

and Brabim-Smith may be tending towards alarmism, but they want

Australians to think about the world after the American-led alliance

system has passed into history.

An American journalist, Jeffrey Goldberg, writes in The Atlantic this

week that he asked a number of unnamed White House officials whether

there is a Trump doctrine in foreign policy. One, described as a

senior official with direct access to the President and his thinking,

replied that there is. And it is: "We're America, bitch." History is

in the making.

Peter Hartcher is international editor

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Peter Hartcher

Peter Hartcher is the political editor and international editor of The

Sydney Morning Herald. He is a Gold Walkley award winner, a former

foreign correspondent in Tokyo and Washington, and a visiting fellow

at the Lowy Institute for International Policy.

Last Updated on Saturday, 16 June 2018 15:01